“Mind and Brain – A Philosophical and Scientific History” / 1

It has been compared brain to machinesince the Danish anatomist suggested doing so Niccolo Stennonin 1665, in a lesson considered the foundational verb ofAcademy of Sciences. Three hundred and fifty years of telling ourselves that the brain is like a water canal, not like gear, not like a mail system, not like a telegraph network, etc.

However, in these three hundred and fifty years, our idea of ​​the “machine” has changed, and as our ideas about the brain have changed, perhaps even more, to the point that today we have social networks and cloud computing that we tend to do the opposite: to call computers “brains.” . But the result nonetheless crude metaphor And the reason is always the same: we don’t yet understand the brain, but we do know machines from top to bottom, simply because we’re building them.

The narrative device he invented Matthew Cobbauthor of Mind and Brain – Philosophical and Scientific History (Einaudi, 2021, 480 pages), effective and able to make reading A powerful philosophical and scientific history of the brain Because it constantly reminds us of the birth and achievement of the scientific enterprise in history: not only do scientists swerve at the anatomical table or lock up in the laboratory with their sophisticated instruments, but the people who live in a world that also produces literature, art, philosophy, and technology. that it science is culture Its history can also be traced along the osmosis of concepts and images that we find in the escape literature as well as in the more technical texts of physiology, and in the technologies that enliven our lives. Let’s not forget, for example, that a file the word “robot” He was born in the theater.

The heart or the brain: what is the center of our feelings and thoughts?

But the history of mind and brain research is also history A big unsolved mystery. Heroes are almost always Opposition to schools of thought And scholars who quarrel over major issues that are often repeated. One is the question: are the functions of the brain localized, that is, are they performed in precise anatomical parts, or are they spread throughout its entire structure? Over time, this question has had alternating, sometimes divergent, answers, but all descend from the observation that The brain has “functions” And even that wasn’t an obvious discovery.

In fact, for centuries we have believed that The center of thoughts and feelings was the heartAnd not the brain: after all, the activity of the heart can also be felt from the outside and it is easy to understand that it is related to what we do, think or feel. We Europeans believed it, but Even the Maya believed it: Perhaps the Chinese did not believe it, who always gave more importance to interactions than to individual members. But it was definitely an idea based on aexperimental note More than reasonable.

There were those who put forward the idea that the brain could be important, like the philosopher Alcmeone, then the Alexandrian doctors Erofilo da Calcedone and Erasistrato di Ceo, but winning everything was Aristotlethat crystallized in its own power centrality of the heart.

Four hundred years later, he was born alternative stream of thoughtGalen, the great physician and philosopher, succeeded, with his general experiments in the anatomy of animals, to showThe importance of the brain and nerves from which she was born. Centuries later, the Persian physician Hali Abbas settled Galen’s idea of ​​having “animal spirits” traveling from the heart to the ventricles. But again: Aristotle’s authority was very strong, and then reconciled well with the Qur’an (as pointed out by the Islamic physician Ibn Sina, in the eleventh century) and with the Christian faith (then, two centuries later, the thought of Thomas Aquinas arose in Europe). Therefore, the traditional school for a long time prevailed between the two schools of thought, closer to the sacred texts, although the medical school of Salerno joined the Galenic school (in Abbas sauce).

This situation continues Until the end of the Middle Ages, when she was faced with scientific controversies by reading the texts of the old professors, and not verifying personally. Then came the scientific revolution, then came Vesalius and the anatomy of the body.

Vesalius was able to think, and suggested thinking, For the brain as the seat of the soul. But he could not go further: “seeing” the body, in fact, still did not allow to understand the function of its various organs, and in any case he did not find the “wonderful network” that should have allowed animal spirits to enter the brain. The brain was a mystery, but from now on it also became the most important organ in the body.

Both will remain, despite the turbulent developments in technology: comprehension tool But it also mimics our biological complexity and its remarkable potential.

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